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Don't believe that Jeter's defense has improved

8/9/2002

The headline threw me for a loop.

Ever-Improving Jeter Eyes a Gold Glove

This wasn't some rag, some scandal sheet. This was The New York Times. The Sunday Times. The paper of record containing all the news that's fit to print by the Gray Lady herself.

I don't have time to read every newspaper article about baseball that's published, but this one I had to read. About a year-and-a-half ago, I sat down to write a column comparing the great shortstops, and it wound up, mostly, as an examination of Derek Jeter's value as a fielder. I looked at every objective measure I could find, and all of them suggested that Jeter was, at best, average with the glove.

I also came up with my own method. I compared Jeter's defensive statistics to the other Yankees who played shortstop since he's been on the team. If Derek Jeter were really outstanding, as so many people seemed to think, wouldn't he have better statistics than his backups? But in fact, he did not. The other Yankee shortstops, none of them considered brilliant defensive players, actually combined to post slightly better numbers than Jeter.

Nothing I'd ever written got more attention. A day or two later, I went on the radio in New York with Yankees broadcasters Michael Kay and John Sterling, and Sterling did his very best to humiliate me before their many thousands of listeners. He probably did, too. I imagine I came off like a tongue-tied geek, my nose buried in so many books that I don't have time to actually watch baseball games.

Yet, nothing that's happened since has changed my mind. A few months ago, Bill James came out with a new player evaluation method called Win Shares. His tools for evaluating defense are, in many ways, similar to those previously devised by Baseball Prospectus' Clay Davenport, so it shouldn't be a surprise that they reach the same conclusion: Jeter is not a good defensive player. In his book, James assigns defensive "grades" to players with significant career games, and Jeter gets a D+.

But while I've become convinced that Derek Jeter is not, in fact, even a good defensive shortstop -- let alone a great one -- wouldn't it be wonderful to be proved wrong? To learn that either I was wrong all along or that Jeter really has improved since the last time I checked? Wouldn't that be wonderful, to learn something like that? To be surprised?

So it was with great eagerness that I began to read Tyler Kepner's article in the Times.

Truth be told, it did not start off with a bang. Three paragraphs suggesting that Omar Vizquel has a stranglehold on the Gold Glove (that's true) thanks in part to a generous official scorer in Cleveland (probably not true).

But then we get into the meat of the argument, the reasons why Jeter perhaps does deserve to break Vizquel's nine-year streak. Unfortunately, as it turns out, there's not really any meat at all.

First, there's Jeter saying that he wants to get better. Then there's Willie Randolph saying that Jeter's big, but not so big that he can't play shortstop. Then there's Alex Rodriguez saying that Jeter was already good. Then there's Ron Coomer saying that Jeter is daring. And finally, Randolph again, saying that Jeter is still young enough to get better.

Frankly, Alex Rodriguez's opinion is very close to irrelevant. Rodriguez didn't even address the question of Jeter's supposed improvement; he couldn't, because he's only seen Jeter play a few times this season. He simply says that Jeter has "always been really good," a highly suspect assertion because 1) Rodriguez speaks glowingly of everybody, and 2) anyway, we already know there's little or no objective evidence to support the notion that Jeter has always been really good.

The funny thing is, there are some hints within the article that maybe Jeter hasn't been a great defensive player all these years.

According to Kepner, Jeter thinks he's having his best season with the glove. "More than any other year, by far," Jeter said. OK, but if he was a great fielder before this year, could he really be doing far better this year? Doesn't seem likely.

Also according to Kepner, Randolph "noted that Cal Ripken was an extraordinary shortstop despite minimal range because he positioned himself so well. Jeter, Randolph said, is learning to do the same."

The message here? Jeter is comparable to Ripken in terms of his natural range -- after all, Jeter stands six-three, just an inch shorter than Ripken -- but not until this year has he worked so hard to position himself, as Ripken did

It sounds to me like a lot of people already knew, whether they'll admit it or not, that Jeter has not been a great defensive player for most of his career. So the next question is, has he become a great defensive player this year? Does he really deserve to be considered a serious Gold Glove candidate?

Only if all that hard work is paying off. Only if he's actually increased his range. And if he had a lot more range, wouldn't that show up somewhere in the statistics?

Last season, Jeter made 3.8 plays per nine innings.
This season, Jeter has made 3.7 plays per nine innings.

Yes (you're saying), but maybe there simply aren't as many plays to be made this season. Maybe the pitchers haven't given up as many groundballs. True, for the most part they're the same pitchers from last season, but still ...

Granted. So how might we explore that issue? We can, again, look at what Jeter's backups have done. If the pitchers really are doing something to decrease the number of plays available to the shortstops, presumably the other Yankee shortstops would make fewer plays this year than they made last year.

Last season, Enrique Wilson made 4.3 plays per nine innings.
This season, Enrique Wilson has made 4.3 plays per nine innings.

So you've got two shortstops playing for the same team, and their range statistics are virtually identical from season to season, while playing behind the same pitchers. Might not we conclude from this that 1) those numbers fairly represent their skills, and 2) Wilson may well be the better defensive shortstop?

I asked Clay Davenport if he's got any evidence that Jeter's gotten better this year, and Clay was kind enough to run his Fielding Translations for 2002. And the result? "No, statistically Jeter hasn't improved at all."

To me, the conclusion is inescapable. Jeter may think he's making more plays, and he's to be commended for trying to improve. But the evidence that he's actually making more plays ... well, it's just not there. And all the wishing of all the millions of Yankees fans -- not to mention the people who broadcast and write about the Yankees -- isn't going to conjure evidence that doesn't exist.

And so I'll say what I said a year and a half ago ... Derek Jeter is a great player, but he's a great player not because he plays shortstop well, but simply because he can play shortstop. He's Cecil Travis with power.